NVFC Participates in National Conference on Firefighter Heart Health

National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) First Vice Chair Steve Hirsch participated in a national meeting of fire service leaders to discuss a leading threat to firefighters – heart attacks. The Heart to Heart Conference, hosted by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, took place in Washington, DC, on December 3-4 to strategize an evidence-based approach to reduce cardiac disease and death in the fire service.

First responder health is a key focus of the NVFC’s initiatives. In 2003, the organization launched the Heart-Healthy Firefighter Program to help firefighters and EMTs lower their risk of heart disease. The program also assists departments in establishing health and wellness program.

Heart attacks are the leading cause of on-duty firefighter deaths each year. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, 61 of the 91 on-duty firefighter fatalities (or 67 percent) in 2014 were caused by stress or overexertion. Of these, 59 were from heart attack and two were from strokes. Between 2005 and 2014, 486 firefighters died in the line-of-duty death from heart attacks.

During the Heart to Heart Conference, researchers presented the results of the latest studies relating to firefighter cardiac health as well as how this information can be used to improve firefighter health. The research indicates that electrolytes modify, plasma viscosity changes, and vascular walls stiffen when firefighters are involved in high heat environments. Additional concerns facing firefighters include heart enlargement, high blood pressure, obesity, sleep apnea, and pre-existing coronary disease.  Studies also indicate that the failure to hydrate properly and failure to take charge of one’s fitness and wellness are more detrimental to firefighter well-being than factors like the weight of the gear.

All of these issues are also interrelated to cancer, substance abuse, and behavioral health.  Many of the factors that lead firefighters down the road to a cardiac event are often the same ones that lead toward cancer being contracted.

“This research proves that fire service leaders need to do a better job of rehab and of pushing health and fitness in the fire service,” said Hirsch. “This is not a volunteer or career issue, but rather an issue that affects the entire fire service community. Regardless of pay status, we all perform the same functions and we all die in similar ways. We all need to examine what we can do to lessen the risks and better protect ourselves and our colleagues from cardiac-related death and injury.”

The outcomes of the research will help inform recommendations that departments and firefighters can implement. Learn more about firefighter heart health and find information for lowering your risk factors and developing a department health and wellness program at www.healthy-firefighter.org.